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Wharton Salon's Third Season: Autres Temps
By Elyse Sommer
Co-founder Dennis Krausnick's adaptations of Wharton short stories and novels, presented in the parlor right next door to the room where so many of them were written, proved to be among the company's most popular offerings. Exciting as the Company's expansion, and with it the move to their present Kemble Street site was, it also meant the Wharton plays needed to give way to other and more varied productions. But Krausnick's savvy adaptations are too good not to still have a life, at least that was the passionate belief of former Shakespeare & Company actor-director-communications associate Catherine Taylor-Williams.
Not a woman to just talk about what should or could be, Taylor-Williams founded the Wharton Salon. Together with co-producer Lauryn Franzoni and a marketing assist from the multi-talented artist-photographer Kevin Sprague the young company is now in its third season of producing a Wharton play. Happily the beautifully restored Mount's executive director, Susan Wissler, saw these productions as a perfect fit for the popular restoration. Result: The Wharton Salon's plays are once again a site specific experience. The series was launched in the Mount's Salon and then moved to the Stables venue down the road which long served as a second stage for Shakespeare & Company to put on memorable productions of works by Shakespeare as well as new plays (I first saw the Pulitzer Prize winning Wit here).
For this writer and many other Berkshirites, these plays have been a delightful trip down memory lane, triggering images from past Wharton and other plays. Since Taylor-Williams has cast all three plays so far with past and present Shakespeare & Company colleagues the series has also been a means for the Mount, Shakespeare & Company and the young Wharton Salon to be a loosely but happily connected family.
With just one play a season and for a very brief run — hopefully with at least another production and longer runs not too far off — Ms. Taylor-Williams has been careful to choose wisely. One of Wharton's few comedies, Xingo, was a good starting choice since it provided an opportunity to reunite seven of her friends and former colleagues. With the adaption of Wharton's novella Summer the Salon moved into more serious territory, and did so very movingly.
Now, Diane Prusha and Rory Hammond, who were the chorus to the key characters in last year's production, are back for the adaptation of a 1910 short story "Autres Temps." As the setting for the series is marvelously apt, so is this casting of the real life mother and daughter these to play Mrs. Lidcote and her daughter Leila -- the former a woman whose divorce led to a life of social exile and the latter following in her footsteps but, thanks to the changing of mores, more a gay than a sad divorcee.
For people who've watched Rory Hammond grow up along with Shakespeare & Company, sometimes on stage, other times handing out tickets, seeing the now twenty-something actor adds an extra filip of nostalgia. While Hammond's role is crucial to the story, as are Corinna May 's cousin Susy Suffern and James Goodwin Rice's Frank Ide, the suitor who would share Mrs. Lidcote's life even it meant as an exile from the society that bred both of them, this is Prusha's star turn.
The Stable Theater has been spruced up with a fresh coat of paint, and the increasing maturity of the Wharton Salon organization is evident in the handsome set by Kate Sinclair Foster which was built especially for this production. The shift from an ocean liner's deck to various other locales that include a New York hotel room, and a Lenox mansion's guest room (Wharton set a number of her stories in the Berkshires thus ratcheting up the site specificity of Krausnick adaptions like Summer and this one) is handled with numerous prop changes — which adds up to a bit too many fussy intra-scene blackouts.
Adapter Dennis Krausnick came on board to help Ms. Taylor-Williams realize her vision of moving the story forward to 1962. This new time frame was prompted by the fact that Mrs. Wharton was in many ways a woman ahead of her time. The coice to move things to a period when more women opted out of unsatisfying marriages, soon to be followed by the women's movement that led them to explore life patterns other than that of the stay at home wife and mother is an interesting idea even if it didn't quite work for me. Mrs. Lidcote is an intelligent and astute observer of people's beneath the surface feelings. However, she remains a woman locked into her era. For her the fact that things having changed meant being accepted back into the world which made her divorce a major scandal and ended up with her even losing the man for whom she left her marriage. Unlike her creator, Mrs. Lidcote didn't become a successful author (shades of the new means of self actualization that would come a few years after 1962 with Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique), but lived rather purposelessly. Her daughter Leila and her friends were also caught between their parents time and the changing expectations for women to come. While they could divorce without becoming pariahs, they still they sought fulfillment through a spouse's success which, as is the case with Leila, meant catering to those with the power to make it happen.
Well-intentioned as this between-eras time frame is, the charm and durability of these pieces is the way they take us into Wharton's world, and, at least for me, they work best without tinkering with the original. Still, part of creating a spirited, adventurous company is not to be afraid to take risks which is exactly what this Autres Temps does.
My quibbles aside, the Wharton Salon 2011, like the Wharton Salon 2009 and 2010, invite a revisit with Edith Wharton's stories and novels still worth reading ouevre. Since " Autres Temps" as written by Wharton is available free at Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/24132) you may want to read it —, if only to appreciate Dennis Krausnick's talent as a playwright/adaptor. Here too are links to my coverage of the first and second Wharton Salon productions: Xingu in 2009 and Summer in 2010.
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